Much has been made about the prospect that Barack Obama's presidency
might, due to economic necessity and the president-elect's
interventionist inclinations, be a reprise of the New Deal era.
But there will be no "new New Deal" if Americans simply look to
Obama to lead them out of the domestic quagmire into which Bill Clinton
and George Bush led the country with a toxic blend of free-trade
absolutism, banking deregulation and disdain for industrial policy.
Just as Roosevelt needed mass movements and militancy as an excuse to
talk Washington stalwarts into accepting radical shifts in the economic
order, so Obama will need to be able to point to some turbulence at the
And so he may have it.
After the Bank of America -- a $25-billion recipient of Bailout Czar
Hank Paulson's "Wall Street First" largesse -- cut off operating credit
to the Republic Windows and Doors company, executives of the firm
announced Friday that they were shutting its factory in Chicago.
Instead of going home to a dismal Holiday season like hundreds of
thousands of other working Americans who have fallen victim to the
corporate "reduction-in-force" frenzy of recent weeks -- which has seen
suddenly-secure banks pocket federal dollars rather than loosen up
credit -- the Republic workers occupied the factory where many of them
had worked for decades.
Members of United Electrical Workers
Local 1110, which represents 260 Republic workers, are conducting the
contemporary equivalent of the 1930s sit-down strikes that led to the
rapid expansion of union recognition nationwide and empowered the
Roosevelt administration to enact more equitable labor laws. And, just
as in the thirties, they are objecting to policies that put banks ahead
of workers; stickers worn by the UE sit-down strikers read: "You got
bailed out, we got sold out."
"We're going to stay here until we win justice," says Blanca Funes,
55, of Chicago, who was one of the UE members occupying the Republic
factory over the weekend for several hours.
Most of Republic workers are Hispanic and they want answers from the Bank of America and the company.
According to the UE, the workers hope "to force the company and its main creditor to meet their obligations to the workers."
"Their goal is to at least get the compensation that workers are
owed; they also seek the resumption of operations at the plant,"
explains the union. "All 260 members of the local were laid off Friday
in a sudden plant closing, brought on by Bank of America cutting off
operating credit to the company. The bank even refused to authorize the
release of money to Republic needed to pay workers their earned
vacation pay, and compensation they are owed under the federal WARN Act
because they were not given the legally-required notice that the plant
was about to close."
UE is an independent union that is not affiliated with the AFL-CIO,
although its roots go back to the militant labor organizing of the
1930s that gave rise to the groundbreaking Congress of Industrial
Some of the solidarity of old has been on display in Chicago this
weekend, as UE members have been supported by unions that are
affiliated with both the AFL-CIO and the Change to Win coalition of
Recognizing the absurdity of taxpayer-funded bailouts that enrich
banks that in turn cut credit for American manufacturers, Richard Berg,
president of Chicago's powerful Teamsters Local 743, said. "If this
bailout should go to anything, it should go to the workers of this
Invoking Chicago's rich record of labor struggle -- from the
Haymarket Martyrs in the 19th century to the steel industry organizing
of the 1930s -- American Federation of State, County and Municipal
Employees Council 31 regional director Larry Spivack hailed its latest
"The history of workers is built on issues like this here today," Spivack told union members at the plant.
But it is not just the history of workers that turns on struggles
such as this. It is the history of presidents and the United States.
Barack Obama will not be the new FDR, and this coming period will
not see a "new New Deal" unless labor is inspired to fight once more to
keep workers on the job, plants operating and American manufacturing
industries muscular enough to survive in the global market. Then, the
proper demands can be made on an Obama administration to back up not
just unions but their expanding membership.
If the right history of this time is written, it will be said that
the new New Deal began in Chicago -- not just because Obama comes from
the city but because workers there chose to stand up by sitting down.
For updates on developments in Chicago, UE website.
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